The three letters of John are among the last written in the apostolic era. According to the traditional view of these three letters, they were written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, most likely the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John. He also wrote the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. We know very little about John’s activity after Acts 8 and even there he is only mentioned as a companion of Peter. Even though there is a good argument to be made he did ministry in Samaria, little can be known with any certainty.
The Gospel of John has several hints he led a synagogue of Christian Jews and Samaritans. According to tradition, he left Judea and Samaria in the mid-60s just before the Jewish War began and relocated in Ephesus. He led Jewish Christian congregations there until the late 80s or early 90s when he was exiled to the island of Patmos. He wrote the Gospel of John about 85, the three letters and Revelation about 90. He died in the early 90s and was buried in Ephesus. His grave became Saint John’s Basilica and ruins of this church are still a tourist site in Ephesus.
As with most things traditional, almost every aspect of this story is disputed. Like the Gospel of John, the first letter is anonymous and there is no way to prove John left Judea or Galilee and traveled anywhere. The traditions about John the son of Zebedee moving to Ephesus are complicated by the use of the title “John the Elder.” The Elder is the author of Second and Third John, but there is some question whether the John the Elder is the same person as John the Apostle. Eusebius and Jerome both though there were two different men, the Apostle John (who wrote the Gospel and Revelation) and John the Elder, who wrote at least Second and Third John.
In addition, John would have been very old by the end of the first century, leading some to suggest the Gospel and letters represent a community formed around John rather than an elderly John writing these letters himself. Raymond Brown developed the Johannine Community theory in his Anchor Bible Commentaries on the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John and remains a popular view, although it has been frequently challenged.
There are also some complicated theories about how the Gospel of John was formed and how the first letter may be a response to a misunderstanding of an earlier edition of the Gospel. The first letter has been described both as a “cover letter” for the Gospel and as a hermenutical guide for reading the Gospel.
The situation for Second and Third John is slightly different since the author identifies himself as “the elder.” But this not much of a hint at the identity of the author. There even some in the early church who wondered if the Second John needed to be in the canon since it is a brief summary of First John and adds almost nothing to what the first letter says.
Regardless of all this scholarly consternation about the origins of these letters, they are among the most popular among Bible readers today. First John is very practical, easy to read yet challenging both theologically and spiritually.